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Reasonable doubt

Judge Lord Neil Denison , and Court Clarks Nike Adebajo and Yvonne Powell
BBC Radio 4's Law In Action
Tuesday 10 March 1600 GMT
On Radio 4 and online

Magistrates dealing with criminal offences are "case-hardened" and may not properly apply the correct standard of proof, a prominent barrister claims.

Kirsty Brimelow, who has prosecuted and defended in many criminal cases, argues that juries, by contrast, "very conscientiously" apply the "beyond reasonable doubt" standard of proof for conviction.

In outspoken remarks, Ms Brimelow says that although magistrates know where the standard of proof is, "they may think 'I've heard that story before, in fact I've heard it several times.'" That, she argues, may lead them not to apply the standard properly.

Drawing on her experience of advocacy in a wide range of cases, Ms Brimelow says that she also asks juries to apply the "beyond reasonable doubt" test for conviction rather than the modern formulation of "satisfied so that you are sure".

Kirstey Brimelow
Barrister Kirsty Brimelow

"People do say, 'I'm sure' when they're not really in everyday life. Whereas the words 'beyond reasonable doubt' really make a jury consider the gravity and the importance of the decision that they're making."

James Whitman of Yale University tells the programme that the origins of the reasonable doubt test have less to do with protecting the accused person and more with protecting the souls of the jurors against the danger of damnation.

"Most trials in the mediaeval period ended in an execution," he says. "People who had collaborated in a wrongful execution were thought to be murderers and to be threatened with damnation as a result."

A new approach to piracy?

Also on the programme, we report on the growing number of pirates off the coast of Somalia seeking to board ships and extort money.

Gunmen in boat
Why are governments letting pirates get away?

Thomas Winkler of the Danish Foreign Ministry points out that only "a very small proportion" of the pirates apprehended by the growing EU, American and Asian naval forces in the Gulf of Aden is actually prosecuted. This is partly because different countries apply different legal tests to the pirates they arrest.

Douglas Guilfoyle of University College London argues that one way of tackling this problem might be for countries to apply to cases of piracy a convention designed to counter terrorist hijackings.

Read more about prosecuting pirates.

Coming Up

In tackling the explosion in gun and knife crime among young people in London, the Metropolitan Police is working with youngsters from black communities across the capital in a ground-breaking programme aimed at turning them into the next generation of leaders. We go behind the scenes to discover how the programme is working.

Contact the programme

If you have thoughts on any of the topics we've covered, or any other legal issues, you can contact us by email at, or by post at Law In Action, BBC White City, Wood Lane, London W12 7TS.

Law In Action is broadcast on Tuesday 10 March 2009 at 1600 GMT on BBC Radio 4.

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02 Nov 09 |  Africa

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